You’re enjoying a lovely walk with your dog, when all of a sudden, it appears— skateboarder! You tense as your dog gathers herself, lunges, and barks, straining to chase and maybe catch that horrifying apparition. You feel annoyed, frustrated, and embarrassed. What do you do? Fortunately, the science of training can help you out.
Reward the “look at that” moment: Believe it or not, there is probably a brief moment when your dog focuses on the skateboarder but has not yet over-reacted (especially if you start far away at first). You can strengthen this moment and build on it through a method called “look at that.” Basically, you mark that moment with a reward marker and follow it up immediately with a reward.
Because this requires precise timing, it helps to use a mechanical, broad-spectrum marker like a clicker, although a verbal marker can also work. Click the clicker or say “Yes!” the moment you see your dog focus on the skateboarder. At first, I click every moment the dog is looking and stuff treats in her mouth as she continues to look. Gradually I show the dog the treat and draw her gaze away to get the treat. After many, many repetitions I increase my expectations and wait for her to look away on her own, and I will strongly reward the “look away” moment.
Because your dog is likely to be very focused on the skateboarder, it helps if she already has an understanding that the click means a treat is coming because of the dog’s successful action. You can easily do this beforehand by associating the click with other successful actions, whether that’s familiar commands or a new, fun trick.
What if it’s too late? If you missed that “look at that” moment, and your dog has started to lunge or bark, try to stay safe, move further away if you can, and prepare for the end of the encounter—because there will be a second opportunity, when the skateboarders are far enough away that your dog can look at them, or where they once were, more calmly. Training is all about influencing future choices, not just stopping something that your dog has already started. Try to set up so that your next encounter will go better.
Start in the shallow end: It’s important to incorporate “desensitization” into your training plan. Start where your dog can be successful, such as a popular skating spot that you can gradually approach from a distance. If you start too close, or near skaters going too fast or passing too frequently, you’ll be throwing your dog in the deep end, and it will be more than she (or you) can handle.
Form a positive association: Your dog is probably feeling aroused, excited, frustrated, and maybe scared. You need to counter that underlying emotion by teaching a more positive association. This is the easiest part, because the reward you’re using to reinforce the calm behavior is already getting connected in the dog’s mind with the situation. Make sure it’s a really good one.
Why they do it: It is so common for dogs to react to skateboarders, and it’s my theory that it is because they are fast-moving; the wheels sound like growling; and there is the possibly confusing appearance of a human who is both standing still and simultaneously moving fast. This is something fairly unique to skateboard riders, but the “look at that” technique can be used for almost any trigger that your dog overreacts to, including other dogs, other people, cats, leaf-blowers, and even squirrels.
Stacy Braslau-Schneck is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer based in San Jose. She is the owner of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train, a Beast of the Bay Award Winner in 2016, providing private lessons and day training for puppies and dogs in Santa Clara County. Whether it’s teaching a new puppy basic manners or solving problem behaviors like barking, lunging, aggression, food-stealing, destruction, or jumping up, she would be happy to help you “love your well-trained dog.”
Main article photo by: Photo by lora_313-CC